Photo by Valerie Terranova
“Freight Train” is an American folk song written by Elizabeth Cotten. Cotten was once nanny to folk singer Peggy Seeger, who took the song with her to England.
British songwriters Paul James and Fred Williams later hijacked the song as their own and copyrighted it. Under the defense of the influential Seeger family, copyright was eventually restored to Cotten.
We only learn this information at the end of Songs About Trains: A Celebration of Labor Through Folk Music presented by Working Theatre, Radical Evolution and New Ohio Theatre. This ambitious effort needs to be further developed, because we never learn why we are really here. This is partly because writer Beto O’Byrne, never sets this up, nor do the contributing authors: Eugenie Chan, Reginald Edmund, Rebecca Martínez, and Jay Muskett.
The show begins as a concert with a cast of talented musicians including: CK Edwards, Christian A. Guerrero, Cedric Lamar, Julián Mesri, Beto O’Byrne, Sara Ornelas, Jessica Ranville and Xiaoqing Zhang impressing us by playing an array of instruments. 21 historic folk songs intertwine with fictional letters that don’t tell the whole story, let alone the most important bits of the story. This scourge for society and mankind is full of information that most people do not know. Where the construction of the transcontinental railway used mainly the Chinese represented by Xiaoqing Zhang, who plays a fabulous violin, the entire southern railway network, built during the time of slavery, was built almost exclusively by slaves. For that, we get a CK Edwards who does awesome tap dancing, but we’re not really told why. The work of the Mexicans on the railroads was actually hidden. The first is represented by Christian A. Guerrero, the others not.
Many died from disease and grueling, grueling work. The amount is mind-boggling. The owners’ blind disregard for public safety was strictly due to greed, and those who owned the railroads were the most powerful men in the land. This should also have been included in this piece.
The performers each have their moments to shine and all sing well with Christian A. Guerrero, Cedric Lamar and Xiaoqing Zhang standing out vocally. Jessica Ranville stands out in the acting department by reading the letters of the Native American fork lore.
Directors Rebecca Martínez and Taylor Reynolds do a good job with what’s available, as does choreographer Joya Powell. This tap number is spectacular. What stands out is the musical director and arrangements of Julián Mesri who is also in the show.
The theater itself is oddly laid out, although it works. The chairs are mismatched and uncomfortable as the show lasts about 2 hours. The audience is in three sections, with a stage on the fourth wall. This was done by set designer Peiyi Wong. The costumes by Lux Haac, the lighting design by María-Cristina Fusté and the sound design by Margaret Montagna are well done.
songs about trains is a fabulous idea, which I would like to see fleshed out a bit more so that it has weight. My guest that I brought to see this show was so confused he wasn’t even sure what he saw. Unfortunately, I couldn’t elucidate it. On another note, the programs have to be distributed because the internet does not work in the theater, so no programs.
Songs About Trains: A Celebration of Labor Through Folk Music New Ohio Theater, 154 Christopher Street until April 23.